In 1968, Pete Peterson was among the youthful legion marching to the call of Eugene McCarthy, the Democratic upstart who opposed the war in Vietnam.
More than half a century later, in this time of boiling anger and political strife, Peterson’s liberal outlook hasn’t changed. But at age 72, the retired social worker has grown more pragmatic.
He likes Elizabeth Warren, the left-leaning Massachusetts senator. But he wonders how the White House hopeful would fare against President Trump.
“I worry she’s going to be portrayed as an Eastern liberal and all that kind of thing, which a lot of rural Midwestern people, they just respond to that kind of stuff,” Peterson said, a hand resting thoughtfully against his cheek. “It bugs me. But that concerns me.”
Democrats may be deeply divided ahead of Monday’s Iowa caucuses, torn between a dozen candidates and cleaved along the traditional line dividing party moderates from more liberal voters. But if there is one overarching sentiment, a desire expressed over and over, it is finding the one candidate most likely to beat Trump in November.
That, of course, is open to broad interpretation.
“I’m looking for someone who can stand up to him, who’s not going to fall for every nickname or tweet or nasty remark,” said Terri Foster, 66, a retired real estate agent in Muscatine, who is leaning toward Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar or Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor.
That may be just one person’s criteria, but she’s not alone in setting her priorities.
To a striking degree, and more than any presidential contest in recent memory, the notion of electability has become the yardstick that many voters are using to assay their choice — even if it means favoring their head over their heart.
For that reason, Peterson has been looking at Klobuchar, whose home state is Iowa’s next-door neighbor.
“What we need is a moderate, a moderate-to-left person who can still appeal to people, get some things done and be able to work across the aisle,” Peterson said as he awaited the start of a Warren event in this town known for the door-and-window company headquartered here. “We’re not going to get everything I thought was good when I was 20 years old and stomping for Eugene McCarthy” for president.
The batch of 2020 hopefuls has responded to the elevation of electability by making it a central theme of their closing argument to Iowa voters, who will cast the first votes of the contest and have a big say in the race going forward.
Warren has shelved her library’s worth of policy plans to talk about the success of female candidates like herself. “Women win,” she said at a recent Davenport stop. “Women candidates have outperformed male candidates since Donald Trump got elected.”
Buttigieg has played to fears about Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who sits atop several Iowa polls.
“Bernie performs the worst against Trump amongst all major candidates,” said one emailed fundraising plea, selectively picking among polls. “In short, we risk nominating a candidate who cannot beat Donald Trump in November. And that’s a risk we can’t take.”
Joe Biden placed electability at the center of his campaign from the start and has begun leaning even more heavily in that direction as the Iowa campaign closes.
“Trump and I have already gone one round with each other on healthcare,” the former vice president told an audience Thursday in Waukee. “In 2018, I went into 24 states for 65 candidates. I took on Trump all over the country and beat him. In fact, we beat him like a drum and in the process took back the majority in the House.”
A new TV spot is blunter still. “Vote Biden,” it says in the final frame. “Beat Trump.”
‘I don’t know if a more progressive candidate would bring out more people. I don’t know if a middle-of-the-road candidate would get more people voting for that.’
The electability debate has been the fulcrum of the Democratic nominating fight throughout. But if candidates insist they know how to win the White House — hug the middle, says one side; swing left, says the other — many voters are far less certain.
Paul Craven, 48, who teaches computer science at Simpson College in Indianola, said electability is very much on his mind as he weighs which candidate to support. The problem is figuring out the answer.
“I don’t know if a more progressive candidate would bring out more people,” he said after hearing Buttigieg speak on campus. “I don’t know if a middle-of-the-road candidate would get more people voting for that. I don’t know, quite frankly, if a male or a female would be more electable.”
Given that, Craven has effectively thrown up his hands and decided to caucus for Klobuchar, with Warren as his second choice.
Judy Trepka, 80, is similarly bewildered.
The retired science teacher, who lives in Iowa City, has been to see eight candidates as she tries to make a choice. Who’s the most electable? “It’s pretty hard to know for sure,” she said as she sat waiting for Biden to hold a University of Iowa town hall.
Perhaps she might consider where the candidates stand in polls? Well, Trepka replied, look how wrong the opinion surveys were back in 2016, when Trump got elected.
There are some who believe the candidate best matching their stance on issues also happens, fortuitously, to be the Democrat best positioned to win in November.
Elijah Marburg sees Buttigieg as the most electable because he can appeal to many different groups: Midwesterners, veterans, the LGBT community.
“The other candidates, the right already has years and years and years worth of ammunition built up against them,” said the 18-year-old freshman at Des Moines’ Drake University. “You know there’s no dirt on Pete Buttigieg.”
Misty Urban, 44, who teaches English at Muscatine Community College, considers her pick — Warren — eminently electable “unless she does something really hideous.”
Of course, for some it doesn’t matter whom Democrats put up against Trump.
After hearing Klobuchar speak at Boonies on the Avenue, a sports bar in Muscatine, 60-year-old pharmacist Lucinda Harms allowed as how she’ll support “any responsible adult” running against the incumbent.
Peterson, the former McCarthy acolyte, said he’d cast his ballot for a dead body over Trump.
Melissa Snydacker, an ardent Sanders supporter, would even risk fire and damnation.
“I will vote for anybody,” said the 70-year-old retired medical technologist. “I will vote for Satan himself.”
Times staff writers Michael Finnegan in Muscatine, Janet Hook in Des Moines and Seema Mehta in Indianola, Iowa, contributed to this report.